One small kick at World Cup is one large step for paraplegics


One small kick at World Cup is one large step for paraplegics Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old Brazilian who is paralyzed from the waist down, kicked the first ball of the 2014 World Cup football championship at the Opening Ceremony on 12 June in Sao Paul Brazil using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton.

The robotic exoskeleton which weighs around 27 kg is built from lightweight alloys and is powered by hydraulics. It is controlled by thought brain waves that are picked up by electrodes in a helmet worn by Pinto. These signals are passed to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit.

The exoskeleton is the result of the international Walk Again Project and is the culmination of years of work by an international team of scientists. Led by Miguel Nicolelis, the Walk Again Project is a nonprofit, international collaboration among the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, the Technical University of Munich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, The University of California, Davis, The University of Kentucky, and Regis Kopper of The Duke immersive Virtual Environment.

This started with research from the Nicolelis lab using hair-thin and flexible sensors, known as microwires, that have been implanted into the brains of rats and monkeys. These flexible electrical prongs can detect minute electrical signals, or action potentials, generated by hundreds of individual neurons distributed throughout the animals’ frontal and parietal cortices – the regions that define a vast brain circuit responsible for the generation of voluntary movements.

Restoring the perception of walking

The paraplegic patient in control of the exoskeleton is typically unable to know the position of his legs in space, the height of each step, or the intensity of his stride. Under such conditions, it is difficult to precisely coordinate the motion of walking. It was precisely to address this problem that EPFL researchers became involved.

As part of the Switzerland-based National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics team, Hannes Bleuler has developed a system to give the young patient – deprived of sensations below the pelvis – sensory information by transmitting it as vibrations to the upper body.

Sensory feedback on the forearm

Their system takes the form of electronic armbands placed on the forearm of the patient which generate vibrations when walking. Induced by sensors placed under the patient’s feet, these vibrations vary in intensity depending on whether the foot is in contact with the ground or according to the position of the legs during the stride. At each step, the necessary information is transmitted to the pilot of the exoskeleton.

To function properly, the system requires some practice. Volunteers in Brazil have been training for months with a full environment in virtual reality (VR). This learning process allowed them to integrate the relationship between the different vibrations felt on the arms with the position of their lower limbs. In the end, it was proved possible to “feel” the pressure of the foot on the ground from heel to toe, or even to know the exact position of the leg when the foot leaves the ground between strides. This is how the exoskeleton is controlled with such fluidity and dexterity.

Youtube: Juliano Pinto kicks the first ball of the World Cup 2014

Walk Again Project

 Date of upload: 14th July 2014


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